11:20am Sat 5th January 2013 Business Centre/The T Hotel
Interview (I): Can you state your full name?
Alistair Asprey (AA): My name is Alistair Peacan Asprey
I: When and where were you born?
AA: I was born in Scotland in June 1944
I: Can you please tell me when and how you got involved with the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong?
AA: Yes, I was not really involved at all in the initial influx of Vietnamese boat people into HK in the 1970’s with the fall of Saigon. I didn’t become involved until the late 1980’s till the beginning of 1989 in fact when I joined the security branch first at deputy and then later in 1990-95 when I was secretary for security. So it was really for those 6 years that I was involved with the Vietnamese boat people.
I: How was it like at first?
AA: Well when I first became involved it was still what you would call a crisis because the number of boat people have flowed in over the years into HK. In some years and months there was a very big influx and then it died down and many of the original people got resettled and then you would get a renewed influx. At the time I first became involved there was a very large influx into HK. We were getting several hundred a day arriving. On one day we had more than 1000 arrive which was the largest no. I remember on one day. At the same time it was a turning point. The HK government had just taken the decision that we were not to give refugee status to all new arrivals. We would have a screening system to screen all new refugees for resettlement and for the others who we felt eventually the only option would be to would be able to be repatriated back to Vietnam when it was safe to return back to Vietnam.
I: What were some difficulties that you experienced in that time?
AA: In many ways the day to day difficulties were very, very great. To actually find a place to accommodate the new arrivals to find new camps or to build new camps to cater for the people arriving was a great logistic exercise. Then we had quite a political problem as well. The international community had lost interest in Vietnamese boat people by that time. We had great difficulty in resettling the remaining refugees in HK at that time. Must have been still 20,000 living at HK at that stage and certainly the international review were not ready to accept a continuing commitment to resettle all the Vietnamese boat people that arrived in the countries first asylum. That was why the HK government decided we couldn’t record refugee status automatically to all new arrivals and that we required a screening process. The HK government had to take the initiative on this and it was only after this that the international community decided to adopt the same policy. Shortly after I became involved 6 months later ( The middle of 1989) another conference was convened in Geneva of all the countries involved with the Vietnamese refugees and at that conference they confirmed that the position we had taken in HK we couldn’t have automatic refugee status for all arrivals and we would need a screening system.
I: Based on the policy side how did the HK people react to the whole thing?
AA: Well probably as you would expect,- not a very sympathetic. There was a feeling that they were using up a tremendous use of resources in HK. I think there was sympathy for genuine refugees but I think there was a feeling that most of these people arriving were not genuine refugees but people in search of a better life and I wouldn’t say there was a feeling against the boat people, not hostile exactly, but not sympathetic.
I: What were some of the most difficult things you had to deal with in your time with the boat people?
AA: Probably the most difficult thing besides the logistics was to try to institute a program of repatriation for the non-refugees. We had a lot of starts and stops on that, but eventually we managed to persuade the URNCR that they should go along with us on a program of repatriation and that they would monitor them when they returned to Vietnam and make sure they were adequately taken care of. I think that was probably the most difficult part.
I: What about the Vietnamese government side? How Cooperative were they with the repatriates? On a policy level?
AA: They were fairly cooperating. I think the turning point and in a way the most memorable moment of this was when HK did the first repatriation exercise.
I: When was that?
AA: I think early 1990. It was the first repatriation which HK did on its own. Everybody else/ everybody in the world you could say were hostile to this. All the upper governments and the UNRHCR didn’t want us to do it and were very hostile but we did do it. I can’t remember how many there were but I was on the first flight and there were about 100.
I: You were on that First flight?
AA: Yes I was on that first flight to Vietnam and the Vietnamese received us well actually. We felt that they were trying to cooperate but there was a big outcry/ International outcry about it after but for that reason the Vietnamese government,- I’m only guessing here. What they were really looking for was they were trying to normalise their relations with the US and the rest of the world and get accepted and because of the outcry that there was about this. I think the Vietnamese government took fright of this and it took a long time before we could institute another repatriation.
I: Why was there an outcry? Was it the way it was carried out? Or the fact that people were repatriated?
AA: I think it was because.. well. Probably two things. The first it was not voluntary. It was mandatory. But we/ there was a group of people that had been screened out and we said well we are going to return these to Vietnam. We couldn’t see any reason looking into their background why they shouldn’t return to Vietnam [and that] they would be at risk there. I think also the/ in a way this was a ground-breaking action and I think that really in some ways the rest of the world was shocked that we could take this action on our own. Against the wishes of the International community. But in a way it despite the entire outcry it did serve its purpose. It showed the way that this would eventually be resolved and certainly later on the International community and the URHCR did come around to accepting this.
I: At the time when it first started what would the number the people that were screened out estimate?
AA: I would think that probably we screened out about 85% and somewhere between 10-12-15% would be screened in as genuine refugees. That’s a very rough estimate and I wouldn’t write it in as a definite account.
I: From my research the total of refugees returning from HK were about 70,000 overall. So when you first started what was the first number that prompted this action?
AA: I think probably we had about at that stage 50,000 Vietnamese refugees. It did go well above that figure. Somewhere at about 80,000. Of course a lot of people that had been to HK left as refugees and of course people being born and I think at one stage we estimated that in total about 250,000 Vietnamese boat people had passed through HK over a period of over 25 years perhaps.
I: Could you describe to me the scene of the people on that first return trip?
AA: Yes.. Well.. In fact when there were held in building sort of separate from all the other Vietnamese. We put them there because we were going to repatriate them and they knew that and the press knew that. There were a lot of press gathered outside at about 5 am. So there were a lot of crying and shouting when they were put onto the buses. .. But in fact.. once they got to the airport and onto plane everyone was really quite calm. The flight went really smoothly indeed. Everyone was really calm and there was no real problems at all on the flight or even getting off the other end.
I: How were they received? The whole crew received by the government in Vietnam?
AA: Yes, I think they were, they seemed to be taken care of. There was transport waiting for them when we arrived in Hanoi.
I: Were they put in camps?
AA: I think they were put in a transient camp but not for very long. I think for a few days to a week until they returned to where they had come from because they hadn’t all come from Hanoi. Some were in outlying areas.
I: Did you have to have a lot of police or the government people to accompany the returnees on that trip?
AA: Yes there were a lot of police on board the aircraft. We probably over did it because we were not sure. We needed to make sure there would be no trouble or we could cope with the trouble. As I said Friday was very calm there was nothing significant happened.
I: Did it take the government in HK a long time to work this out with the Vietnamese government?
AA: Yes, quite some time. Probably took.. Well the first flight must have been about a year after the screening of new arrivals. SO it took a long time to work out a system with the Vietnamese government.
I: Did it ever occur to you what would happen if the Vietnamese government refused to take them back? And you had to screen out what would you do with them?
AA: Well.. Yes, it was obviously the big worry that we wouldn’t be able to. I think that we really saw that as the likely long term result. Certainly by this stage early 1990’s one could see that Vietnam was changing. Establish normal relationships with the US and other countries. So we always felt that in the end Vietnam would take accept responsibility for its own nationals and take them all back.
I: I should have reframed my question. This is all new to me. When you decided to have the screening process that was to see if they met the criteria and at that stage did you already have the thought of returning them as well or you just go along and come up with the action?
AA: Well.. I think when the screening process was introduced. Certainly at that stage we had not agreed any arrangements with the Vietnamese for their return. We went ahead with this on the basis that we would be able to make some arrangements for their return with the Vietnamese government. I think at that stage they had taken a few back but people that had gone back voluntarily. I think there was always some/not many but even some of the refugees that said “We’ll go back to Vietnam”.
I: Were those people who volunteered at first would they return on their own expenses or were they assisted by the HK government?
AA: I don’t know if it was we or the UNRHCR that assisted them but they were given assistance. Yes.
I: But it wasn’t like an organised airplane like that later took place that cost you about 1.5million each trip is that right?
AA: I’m not sure now… But it was expensive. Well I was saying the result of the first mandatory repatriation exercise really was that we… The Vietnamese government decided that they were not sure about this. So it was some time after this that we had a program of voluntary repatriation. We had a lot of flights of people that did volunteer to go back and eventually we were able to reinstitute compulsory repatriation.
I: Within that year that you waited for the second return trip were there more Vietnamese people come over?
AA: Yes a lot. A lot.
I: Would any of it have to do with the fact that the outcry from the International?
AA: I don’t think it was that. I think in the middle of 89. Sometime in July. There was the conference held on the Vietnamese boat people by the UNRHCR which all the countries involved participated. That seemed to act as a deadline. We got a huge influx in the months prior to that and then after that the no’s dropped away quite dramatically. So it seemed that these International conferences were some kind of magnet. There was nothing quite significant about them but it seemed that the word that travelled through Vietnam was to get out before then and after that the no’s dropped quite dramatically.
I: So looking back what were some of you feelings about this whole situation?
AA: I think that my main feeling is that …I’m very grateful that HK acted very honourably and compassionately to the Vietnamese. We didn’t turn them away we accepted them, we fed them, we housed them, we tried to make arrangements for their future. Whether or not if there future was to be in resettlement or in Vietnam. So I think my main feeling now is that I am proud that HK acted in the way it did. No doubt most of it would appear harsh/ appear harsh at the time to most of the Vietnamese involved but I think we tried hard to treat them as well as we could.
I: Are there any particular incidence/moments that were most memorable to you?
AA: Several really. In many ways the most moment I can remember is at this big camp on this air strip in the new territory. I don’t think we really realised the depth of feeling and the possible enmity between some of the people between South and North. One night there was a riot there and the two sides got fighting and the result of that was that one of the buildings was burned down with about 30 people in side and they were all burnt to death.
I: Did the fire take place because of the fight? Or was it intentional?
AA: I think it was intentional. In the end I think some people were prosecuted for that. Till that point I don’t think we quite realised how deep the feelings could be between the Southerners and Northerners. After that we tried to keep them separate. It wasn’t completely possible.
I: So the challenges and the complexity of the whole situation were just layers and I guess a lot of them will just unfold as you come along as no one would have expected that.
AA: I think that the other two occasions were that. We had many thousand people on an island and a typhoon came to area and we had to move them all within the day to somewhere else. We never really had vacant accommodation and it was a great struggle to find accommodation for people on short notice, and the same thing happened in Saigon when there was a typhoon coming through because that was just a tented camp. So we had to move about 10, 000 people on very short notice.
I: So where did you take them to?
AA: Well fortunately for that second one we were building a new camp. It wasn’t finished but at least the huts were there with roofs. So we moved them all there even though it wasn’t quite ready for occupation.
I: And one of the catastrophes that happened during that time that you had to cope with?
AA: I don’t think we had too many really big catastrophes. We certainly did get some trouble in some of the camps. There were a few riots but nothing that was as bad as the one I had described when the people got burnt to death. .. Yeah.
I: That’s a hard thing to deal with.
AA: Yes. It was really awful.
AA: In the end HK was left with some people. We had to accept it. Who couldn’t return to Vietnam for one reason or another and other countries weren’t prepared to resettle. But there weren’t very many. Maybe 1000 to 2000. There was one group of people in particular. Not a very large no. We called the ECVIIs. Which stood for the ex China Vietnamese Illegal Immigrants. I think that after the war in 1979 a lot of particularly ethnic Chinese in Vietnam had actually moved and resettled in China and had been there for some years. Then some of them really decided to join the boat people and tried to get resettled somewhere else. So we had quite a few of them in HK.
I: Did you call them ‘Boomerang’?
AA: No. Laughs. We didn’t. But they were a difficult group because whilst the Vietnamese Government said “Well they’re not our responsibility. They’ve left they’ve gone to China. They’re settled in China.” And the Chinese Government said “Well no they’re Vietnamese they’re not Chinese.” And so I think in the end we weren’t able to return them.
I: And also there were more that married locals and that didn’t count either and I’m sure you would have had some of them.
AA: Oh yes. I wasn’t involved in the early days but I think in the very early days. Immediately before and after the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam a lot of people came through from Saigon to Hong Kong. Well as you know there were a lot of Cantonese people in Saigon and there were quite close ties to many of the people in Saigon and the people of HK…. Family ties and a lot of the people made their own arrangement to come to HK in those days. They didn’t come as boat people. They made their own arrangements to come to HK and were resettled in HK. And I think of the initial boat people who were mainly from the South and quite a lot of Chinese. HK decided to resettle quite a few of those.
I: When you hear the term Vietnamese Boat People Refugees. What comes to your mind?
AA: Ummn.. It’s a sort of phrase of history which was/ I am glad has passed. There was a lot of sad things happened but I think a lot of good things happened as well.
I: So in your career would you say that your experience with the Vietnamese people was the most challenging?
AA: Yes. I think it was certainly one of the most challenging things I had to deal with.
I: Is there anything you would like to add?
AA: No I don’t think so. I’ve been back to Vietnam only once or twice since the movement. It has changed above all recognition.
I: Yes it has changed a lot. I didn’t ask you before. How supportive was the government for you to do your job at that time
AA: I think it was… It was a crisis for the whole of HK government so I think on a whole we got fairly good support from everybody.
I: What about your staff?
AA: Yeah… I mean we had some excellent staff. I was very grateful to have people to help dealt with this.
I: This would have been one of the most unusual situations. It’s not just a quick fire to put out. It seemed to have drag on forever.
AA: Yes. I think in some ways that was part of the problem that as far as the local population was concerned, – they felt that HK had done its bit in dealing with the influx of refugees in the 70’s and the 80’s. And they didn’t really see why they should continue to have to go on in the 1990’s. I think that was part of the feeling. And most of the people, then coming in predominantly from the North of Vietnam were fleeing hardship and not fleeing persecution.
I: What were some of the challenges that you had in determining their status?
AA: I think on a whole that went very well. We instituted quite a big system to do it. It was done initially by immigration officers. – The HK immigration department, and they were trained as to how they should apply the refugee criteria. It was a very big process/long process because there were a lot of people involved. So they did the initial determination and people could then appeal to a review tribunal. We established several boards to review cases that people wanted to appeal. We then finally the UNRCR vetoed and sometimes they came to a different opinion to us. But not often.
I: Thank you very much for your time and for sharing your experience. I thank you for your good heart and endurance to cope with this. Because I am one of the receivers and I am forever grateful for people like yourself, for the governments in HK and Indonesia or all around the world for accepted [the Vietnamese refugees].
AA: Well good. Ok thank you. I hope it all goes well. I’m sure it will.